Esperance is an odd kind of city, on the south-west coast of Western Australia. It has a modest population of about 15,000 people, but with a reputation for the best beaches in the world Esperance is a draw for cruise ships and tour groups from around the world.
I arrived in Esperance at the start of Autumn, 10 days into March, with the heat mostly gone out of the summer and the tourists largely moved on. Though already Autumn, it would be mistaken for a good summer’s day back home: deep blue skies and sun sparkling on the southern ocean like thousands of fireflies.
Esperance — so I am told, and I am little sceptical — officially boasts the best beaches in the world. Apparently this is based on something like the lightness of the sand, or perhaps length of beaches. The city is a 6-hour drive from the city of Albany, hardly a bustling metropolis in its own right but many times the size of this city 500 km further along the cost.
That’s not to say Eleven Mile beach is unremarkable. With the sky a deep blue and the sun shining on the ocean, it was sparkling like thousands of fireflies on the surface of the water. The beach’s soft sands weren’t so “white”, though — and it’s not a criticism, merely an observation that it would be lazy to describe them so simply. They are an incredibly pale yellow, a soft cream, perhaps.
This morning, on my second day in town, I woke up to rain. After a month in Australia not seeing rain, and apparently no significant rain in this region since the year began, it was welcomed. Although I had been looking forward to visiting a beach properly, and experiencing its famous icy waters, I was content to listen to the sound of heavy rain on a tin roof — and when the rain eased, listening to the streams of water as it ran down to the parched garden.
In the afternoon, with the rain and thunder behind us, our host took us out in his four-wheel drive vehicle to experience up close many of the city’s bays and beaches. Even if the rain had stopped, it still wasn’t a day for swimming, but that was OK too — because there’s plenty to see on the beaches and the surrounding areas without having to get your feet wet. Intentionally.
I don’t remember the names of all the bays and harbours we visited, driving down on to the wet sand and following the tracks of vehicles that had gone before us earlier in the day. The names don’t matter, I’m not a tour guide.
On one beach a group of vehicles stood, seemingly abandoned, with doors hanging open and belongings on the sand around them, until we noticed half a dozen surfers out in the water. The swell wasn’t large, but what I enjoy about surfing is sometimes as much about the zen of it: sitting on a board in the water, just quietly and peacefully waiting for the next wave. They weren’t chasing adrenaline today, they were just enjoying being out surfing at all.
On one beach I stopped to look at the line in the sand where the tide reached. Whether the tide was coming in or going out I didn’t stay long enough to make out, but at a certain point the sand was darker and uniformly speckled, while past that point it was glassy and smooth. Perhaps the mottled side of the sand was marked by the morning’s heavy rain, and the great southern ocean was edging its way up the shore to wipe the slate clean.
I could have stood for hours by one collection of rocks. The rocks were mixtures of dark greys and browns, with white sand dusting their crevices like snow. Every now and then a larger wave would come along and wash all around them, and I’d watch as the water drained back through all the small gaps between them. The ocean was a light aquamarine, but in the small rockpools that briefly formed it barely reflected the cloudy sky — in my pictures the water is all but invisible apart from where it catches the light.
On the beach, the pale glassy sand met a white-fringed ocean that went from the slightest hint of blue to aquamarine and out to a deeper blue as it swept out to more distant islands.
The islands themselves seemed to be fighting a war between rock and vegetation, overseen by the patient ocean. Out of the ocean rose smooth reddish brown rock, streaked grey and black in places, and it was impossible to tell if the greenish black vegetation that covered the rock so completely on top was spreading downwards to the sea to cover every last remaining stone, or if the island was balding, with the vegetation receding up the front and sides.
Above the beaches, the same greenish black vegetation was cut through with the dusty red tracks of roads, and up out of the foliage rose monoliths of that reddish brown rock, crusted with yellow moss in its cracks, and worn into the familiar shapes of people and animals by countless seasons of wind, rain and sun.
From high vantage points you could look across the harbours as the sun briefly came out and bleached the sandy shores of colour so that the almost resembled Dover’s chalk cliffs and made that same ocean — still aquamarine darkening almost in a line to a slate or cobalt blue — shine against it where it swept up and retreated. In the sun my attention was directed back towards the houses of Esperance, where a dark curtain of rain was again falling on the city.
Around the beaches, up the paths in the vegetation and rock, were areas for campsites — no doubt filled to capacity in the high season, and a ranger’s house a short distance away. I was reminded of Edward Abbey’s season in the wilderness of Arches National Park in the USA, and wondered what a life would be like as a ranger: wanting to live among the nature of national parks, and recognising that the roads and campgrounds and tourists are in part necessary encroachments for civilisations that must see value from these places: a value that comes from making them easily accessible and habitable.